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Your Job Search: Applying for a Job

After researching different companies, you are ready to start applying for jobs.

If you are doing most of your job search online, start by going to the employer’s Web site and locate the “Jobs,” “Careers,” or “Employment” section. Here you can see lists of openings with the option of posting or submitting your résumé. You can also post or submit your résumé at free Web sites where employers post positions, such as RetirementJobs.com and Monster.com.

Applying online, you will probably submit your application to a general e-mail address instead of to a specific person. Employers who receive large numbers of applications typically post one e-mail address. In most cases, they don’t start communicating with job seekers until after completing an initial review.

To address the employer more directly, you can sometimes find the employer’s phone number and the name of the recruiter or hiring manager on the company’s Web site. If you live near the employer’s office, you can also walk in and ask to speak with someone about job openings. This boldness may not come naturally, but the worst the receptionist can do is say that the person isn’t available to speak.

How to Apply

Decide how to apply for an opportunity based on the type of job you’re looking for:

Hourly Wage Positions (administrative, clerical, manual labor, skilled trades, personal service, or technical): You will probably respond to a job announcement either online or in person. You may also walk into an office to apply, where the receptionist or human-resources person will direct you to fill out an application online at an in-house computer or kiosk. If you’re applying online through the employer’s Web site, be prepared to complete an online application form, which can be time-consuming. Take your time and be as thorough as you can. Bring your list of references and accomplishments with you so that you can do so.

Salaried Positions (professional, senior technical, sales, supervisory, or managerial): Expect to apply online or through an employment agency or recruiting firm. Any way you submit it, your résumé is vital. The employer may also ask you to complete an application to which you can attach your résumé. If your résumé is saved in a Word file, be sure to create an additional text file (.txt) from which to copy and paste the appropriate information in online applications. Some Word files don’t align properly, or characters and symbols do not translate, in some of these forms.

Higher-Paid, Salaried Positions (senior professional, upper-management, or executive): You can also expect to apply online, but at higher pay levels, you may work with a recruiting firm or a headhunter whom the employer has retained for a specific job search. In many cases, the recruiter or search firm locates you by networking and asking for referrals. As an applicant, you can reach out to recruiting and search firms for help in finding these positions.

Understand the Job Requirements

When applying for a specific opportunity, find any information you can about the position, such as duties and qualifications. Tailor your résumé, application information, and cover letter to mirror the information. You can even use exact words and phrases from the job description. Too often, job seekers apply for positions for which they are not qualified and are then disgruntled when they hear nothing or are rejected.

Don’t apply to an employer that is not actively hiring. Sure, it can help to submit an application the employer can keep on file, but don’t get your hopes up. The best candidates for newly open positions are fresh candidates. If it’s been more than a few months since you submitted an application, do it again. When you post a résumé on an employer’s Web site, its HR department can search your application in a database instead of digging through old e-mails or paper résumés.

Employer Consent or Release Forms and Background Checks

Employers are required to obtain your signed release or consent to perform background checks involving your education, military history, or medical records. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows potential employers to inquire only about your physical ability to perform specific job functions. This consent form must be on a separate piece of paper from your application, and it must carry your signature.

Don’t be surprised or offended by the request to perform such a background check. Employers have legitimate reasons for examining every applicant’s background. If you sign the form, ask for the name and contact information of the third-party firm performing the check. Whether or not you disclose any health information or grant the release, is totally up to you.

Background checks are almost routine during the application process. However, federal and state laws outline the scope and nature of background checks. The most important federal law is the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The regulations apply only to job seekers for whom the salary would be $75,000 or lower; and the rules apply to third parties performing background checks. Employers have few limitations on checks they perform themselves. Here’s what you can expect:

Social Security Number: The number confirms that you are eligible to work in the United States. Some people are offended by or anxious about requests for their Social Security numbers, because many of us receive warnings to protect our identities by not revealing our numbers. Applying for a job is the time to use your judgment. If you are uncertain that the employer is legitimate, don’t release your Social. If you’re applying through the company’s official Web site, and the site is legitimate, insert your Social as requested.

Work History and Education: It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of résumés and applications include deliberate misstatements or misrepresentations about work history and education. Don’t exaggerate. Employers can easily check the basics about your work history and education. On the other hand, you need not reveal short term or temporary jobs, and you can generally skip putting in the months of employment; just the years will do.

Credit Reports: Credit reports reveal a great deal about your financial condition and responsibility toward financial obligations. Check your credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com. This is the only Federal Trade Commission-authorized site, and it is actually free. You can get your report from the three primary credit bureaus once each year. Take steps to correct errors or inappropriate information. At the very least, you can notify potential employers of existing credit and financial challenges. If you have a low credit rating, it could prevent you from getting a job.

If you don’t get hired, you can ask the employer if you were rejected due to your background check. If that’s the case, you can request a copy of the report.

What About References and Pay History?

Two of the more awkward pieces of data you may have to reveal in your application are employment references and pay history or salary expectations. You aren’t obligated to answer either, but it’s best to delay providing references by saying: "I prefer that you (the employer) refrain from contacting my references until you believe I’m a serious candidate for a job. I’ll gladly provide them at that time." If the employer insists, provide the names and contact information of a few recent supervisors, and even coworkers, who can serve as references. Always tell your references that they are likely to receive phone calls, and describe to your references the job you are seeking.

Questions about pay are a little trickier. The best approach is to avoid or delay answering. Leave the section about pay history blank. If the employer asks directly, say, “I am certain you have a pay structure and you are concerned about internal equity. I am confident that if you make a reasonable offer, I will be inclined to respect the proposed salary.” If the employer repeats the question, state what your research shows to be the value of your qualifications in the labor market. Another alternative is to say, “I believe it is premature to talk about pay level."

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